“Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” -Alfred Whitney Griswold
But when they give me chills listening to them, that’s when I know I’ve really found a special one. This week, I’m proud to introduce Rebecca Loebe to you, whom I discovered while watching her audition at NBC’s singing competition: The Voice. Have a listen to her hauntingly beautiful cover of Nirvana’s Come As You Are, below.
And now, thanks to new legislation in the U.S. Senate — introduced by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar — I am likely to soon become a criminal for it. Not a misdemeanor offender, either, but a full-blown felon. The kind where I can go to prison for a long time, lose my right to vote, etc.
My great offense? Embedding a copyrighted work. For a youtube video, do it ten times in six months, and you can be a felon under U.S. Law, too.
What does it take to make me a felon? Well, did you click on the video above? If you — and ten others like you — click on it, and that video gets taken down later, at some point, due to a copyright infringement, I am responsible, and that’s going to be a felony offense under U.S. Law.
Sound insane? Stupid? Evil? That doesn’t mean this bipartisan bill isn’t well on its way to becoming a law. But don’t take my word for it. Read the awful piece of legislation, U.S. Senate Bill 978, yourself. You’ll see very clearly that the punishment for this offense is a hefty fine and up to five years in prison. For embedding a youtube video, among other things.
What’s really awful about this is that it could happen even if Rebecca Loebe is very happy to have her video appear on this site. It could happen even if NBC is very happy to have the advertising for their show, “The Voice,” on this site. It could happen because a company like Comcast doesn’t like it, or because the RIAA doesn’t like it, or because any one of a number of music or media companies doesn’t like it. As long as it can be legally construed as a “public performance of a copyrighted work,” you could go to prison for it.
The bill has already passed its committee, and it’s headed to the full Senate, well on the path to becoming law. And you probably haven’t even heard of it until now. Very few sources have been reporting on this.
But you should care. Not just about me, but about the kid in high school or college who uploads a video of them lip-synching to their favorite song. About the online political pundit who embeds a video of a government official making a public statement or a speech in their government building. (Yes, those are copyrighted!) If they come for me, I can fight it. But what about the people without the support of a network of Science Bloggers or a parent company like National Geographic? Don’t let them bully you out of your right to say what you want to say, and to say it how you want to say it.
So what can you do? Well, you can do what I did, which is — if you live in the U.S. — write your Senator. And tell them to oppose this legislation: Senate Bill 978, and to support free speech, including free speech online. Here is my letter to my U.S. Senator, Jeff Merkley. (I also wrote to my other Senator, Ron Wyden.)
Dear Jeff Merkley,
The most ridiculous bill I’ve seen in years has just been proposed in the Senate. It turns me, and many others like me, into criminals. And it has just been proposed by a member of your own party.
The Copyright Infringement Bill, S.978, is hugely problematic, poorly written, and would turn millions of American internet users — people like me, who vote for you — into criminals.
Sir, I write on the internet. I write about science for the general public, and teach physics and astronomy. I link to files, pictures and videos in my writing. Sometimes those videos turn out to have copyright infringement, and they are later taken down. And under this new law, if I do this too frequently, I become a criminal.
Senator, I am no criminal. I stand behind my writing and my right to do it, and I need you to stand behind me, your constituent, and my right to do it. Help defeat this ridiculous bill.
If you appreciate what I — or anyone else on the internet — does, make it known that we shouldn’t be subject to a law that can throw us in prison for up to five years for, well, embedding a video on the internet. There are better ways to protect copyright than to make me a criminal. Merkley has written back to me, telling me that he has been hearing from many Oregonians “who support providing U.S. agencies with greater authority to shut down websites.” Don’t let that be the voice your Senator hears.
And spread the word. It’s information, entertainment and education for all of us, and I refuse to believe that I am a criminal for writing this. I’m proud of all we’ve done here over the years, and I have no intention of stopping it, or of changing how I do it. Don’t let them make a law that lets my country throw me in prison for sharing a little bit about the Universe with you.